Getting your Digital Ducks in Order
Nancy L. Skeans, CPA, CFP®
CEO, Schneider Downs Wealth Management Advisors
What are your digital ducks, you ask? Let’s start with a simple question. How many internet accounts do you have? This includes social media, retail, work-related, travel (hotels, airlines, and travel-booking sites), newspapers, magazines, restaurants, games, bank accounts, credit cards, investment accounts, and insurance (just to name a few). I have 80-something internet accounts, assuming that I did not miss any, and I probably did. Some of them are more important than others, but they all possess information about me.
Many people may think that their digital presence is their social media interaction such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, but it is so much more than that. Many of the accounts that you have opened online or have created online to facilitate viewing invoices and paying bills or just playing games are all part of your digital presence. Think of the information that you supply in order to set up your initial login – name, email address, address, phone number, and sometimes, birthday, for starters. Some ask for a credit card number to link to your account. Some ask for security questions, such as: What is your dog’s name? Where were you born? What high school did you attend? The list goes on and on, and your presence on the internet, directly or indirectly, grows and grows.
The purpose of this article is to help you understand the breadth of your digital presence and the importance of documenting it via an inventory. This article may raise more questions than it provides answers. If you take the article seriously, at the very least, it is also going to create some work for you in the short term. That is, if you do not already have your digital ducks in order.
Now that we can agree that our digital footprint is most likely larger than we realized, I am going to focus on two reasons why it is important for you to understand and inventory your digital existence. The first reason is the security of your personal information. Cybercrime occurs every second of every day. If you do not understand the number of accounts you have on line and what information those accounts contain about you, and potentially other family members, how can you really protect yourself?
Were you one of the thousands of folks that received one or multiple emails earlier this year titled: Your password is XXXXXXXXX (you fill in the blank)? What was your first reaction? Panic? Were you still using that password? If so, did you know to which accounts it applied? Did think you had just been hacked? The truth is that the hack occurred a long time ago, and the phishers were just using old data (hopefully you had already updated passwords) to provoke you into sending them bitcoin. The point of this story is just to remind you that when the next hack occurs, if you have your digital landscape mapped out, you can quickly react to, stop, or minimize any damage.
The second reason that understanding and documenting one’s digital presence is important is with respect to your estate or the estate of someone you love. What happens to those 80+ internet accounts that I have when I pass away? The actual answer to this question is not very straightforward and differs by state. Because of these technicalities, I am going to focus on what you can do to make the process easier for your heirs. However, don’t forget the next time you review your Will with your attorney, ask him or her the questions: How does my state protect my online presence in the event of my death? What language can I add to my Will to give my executor the ability to close my online accounts?
In the meantime, there are actions you can take right now. You can make an inventory of all of your internet accounts. At the very least, include your user name and password, but also include the answers to any security questions. As you are making this inventory, go to each account. Check the strength of your password and update it if needed. Close old and unwanted accounts. Did you just say to yourself - I do not even know what accounts I still have that could be old and unwanted? If so, after you make your first list, if you feel like you have missed some accounts, go to your email. The likelihood is that you receive several emails a day from old accounts that need to be closed. You just ignore those annoying emails – you know the ones: Ruby Tuesday, Seat Geek, JCPenney, Pets.com (just kidding, they went bankrupt), and the list goes on.
One last important thing to note. Please keep this inventory safe. If you create a paper inventory, do not leave it on your coffee table or take it with you on vacation because you cannot remember your passwords. Keep it locked in your firebox with your estate documents or in a locked office drawer where you can easily access it and update it if you add or delete an internet account. Another option is an electronic password keeper. A password keeper contains an inventory of your user names and passwords. Just make sure that this too is up to date, and that it provides all of the information an executor needs to access your digital accounts to delete them. Information regarding your password keeper, along with any instructions, should be kept with your estate documents.
Given that most of us are still spending more time at home than ever before, now may be a great time to start this project. Seek out and close the accounts that you no longer use; do not just ignore them. Check the accounts that you do use, and while logged in, strengthen your passwords. It may feel like a big job, but when you have completed it, you will have improved your personal internet security and you will have made the job of your executor much easier.
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Material discussed is meant for informational purposes only, and it is not to be construed as investment, tax, or legal advice. Please note that individual situations can vary. Therefore, this information should be relied upon when coordinated with individual professional advice.